HALF PRICE SALE Subscribe to Dorset Magazine today CLICK HERE

The Fragrant Bluebell Woods of Dorset

18:15 19 April 2010

The thick carpet of bluebells at Woolland Hill are testimony to the continuity of ancient woodland on this site
photo: Colin Varndell

The thick carpet of bluebells at Woolland Hill are testimony to the continuity of ancient woodland on this site photo: Colin Varndell

Every May the ancient woodlands of Dorset are covered in a carpet of bluebells. Photographer Colin Varndell explores the fragrant domain of the bluebell and reveals some of the best spots to enjoy this seasonal splash of azure amongst the trees.

Hooke Woods

A Carpet of Bluebells


Dorset's ancient woodlands play host to fragrant carpets of bluebells from late April through toMay. Wildlife photographer Colin Varndell reveals some of the best places in the county to revel in this spectacular spring time display


Plantlife in deciduous woodland is a continuous cycle of renewal and decay, with the timing of both dictated by seasonal weather conditions. In early spring, woodland flowers emerge on the forest floor, drawing on underground food reserves as they race to swell their buds and burst into flower. With the advance of spring a flush of green spreads throughout the wood as tender new leaves open. At this time of year the herb layer of the woodland floor is made up of, amongst others, wood anemone, primrose, campion and bluebells. The bluebell woods of Britain and Ireland are said to boast some of the most spectacular displays of spring flowers in Europe and one can never fail to be impressed and stunned by the sheer beauty of such sights. Indeed, 50% of the worlds bluebells occur in Britain and some of the finest examples of mature bluebell woods are here in Dorset. It is therefore absolutely right that we should feel a deep sense of pride and even a kind of parental responsibility to protect this most cherished wildflower and its habitat.

Bluebells form dense carpets of blue where they bloom, just as the trees are coming into leaf. The fragrant nodding violet-blue (rarely white or pink) flowers have creamy white anthers. The narrow dark green leaves are evident long before and even well after flowering. The lime green of beech leaves provides the perfect backdrop for the cobalt spread of flora below. The peak of the bluebell season in Dorset is usually around the last week of April to the first week in May. Winter weather can affect the timing though and a very cold spell earlier in the year can delay the flowering. In spring, there is virtually no lower storey foliage to interfere with the view and as the sun filters through the trees a magical image is created. However, this intense profusion of azure blue does not last long, and within a few days of its peak the colour fades to a paler shade.

The reason we have such a rich explosion of bluebells and other woodland flowers at this time of year is simply due to availability of light. In spring, buds break and the woodland canopy fills with new leaves. Trees constantly compete with each other for light, reaching out with their branches to fill every available gap in the canopy. Once all the leaves have unfurled, every last space in the canopy is smothered with foliage, and sunlight can no longer reach the woodland floor. Spring flowers, like the bluebell, therefore rush for a quick flowering season in order to set seed before this leaf development is complete.

There is no doubt that bluebells do not like dry conditions. After photographing them year after year for over three decades in Dorset, it has been apparent that the richest displays of misty blue haze occur in greatest profusion after relatively wet winters.

However, our native bluebell (endymion non-scriptus) is under threat, and in recent years concern has been growing regarding the increasing risk of cross-breeding with the cultivated bluebell or so-called Spanish bluebell (endymion hispanicus). Such hybridisation can alter a plant species genetic makeup and may result in a reduced ability to survive. This vigorous invader has become popular in gardens around Dorset, and as long as it is allowed to thrive the threat to our own native bluebell increases.

But for now, the time has arrived for the English bluebell to take centre stage as families go on their annual bluebell pilgrimage to view it in all its fragrant splendour. There are so many magnificent bluebell woods in Dorset that to describe them all would take a dedicated book in itself. However, some of the lush stands of bluebells worth visiting can be seen at Powerstock Common, Lewesdon Hill, Fifehead Wood, The Stubbs (near Milton Abbas), Abbot Street Copse and Woolland Hill.

Duncliffe Wood near Shaftesbury boasts one of the largest areas of native woodland in Dorset, covering an area of 213 acres. The bluebells here thickly clothe the steep slopes, and with open public access the wood attracts many visitors in early May. In contrast, Mintern Seat Coppice, a small native woodland near Batcombe, is privately owned. However, in the past, the owners have given permission for limited access to view the bluebells, though much of this magnificent display can be seen from the roadside.

Delcombe Wood near Milton Abbas is mostly private with only limited public access, but the drive (or walk) along the road from Bullbarrow to Milton can be glorious, especially on a dull or wet day in early May, with deep-blue swaythes of bluebells interspersed with drifts of white ramsons (wild garlic).

Although bluebells occur in woods and copses throughout Dorset, it is noticeable when speaking with people around the county that most have their favourite bluebell wood and, more often than not, on their own doorstep. As a nature photographer with a passion for wild flowers, I have always thought that bluebell lovers in Dorset are roughly divided into two categories those who have never visited Hooke Park and those whose favourite bluebell wood is Hooke. In spring, this beech wood is smothered in a knee-deep tide of bluebells, and with trees all of the same age, it creates an eye-catching, repetitive effect on an attractive undulating site. So it has been with great pride that I have led many photographic groups into Hooke Park over the years, but none have been more stridently enthusiastic than a group from Boston, US. Each time I took them to yet another impressive Dorset view they would remark on how wonderful our county was, reminding me each time (actually I did not need reminding) just how lucky I was to live in this part of the world.

I reserved Hooke Park for the end; it was the first week in May and the bluebells were at their best. We walked into the wood in early evening, just as an ethereal sea mist rolled in and the distant trees faded into the thick haze, creating an enchanting atmosphere. The Americans stopped in their tracks, their voices silent but their gaping mouths spoke volumes.


0 comments

Shop with us at Great British Life

More from Out & About

Yesterday, 10:07
Corfe Castle (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A quick search for #Dorset on Instagram gives a huge range of amazing pictures of our beautiful county. Here are a some of the best we found...

Read more
Friday, July 31, 2015
Dorchester High Street. Photo by www.dorsetforyou.com

This delightful county town is steeped in history but exciting new developments at Brewery Square and Poundbury offer an interesting range of properties for buyers

Read more
Thursday, July 30, 2015
One of the beaches on Brownsea Island

Edward Griffths enjoys a stroll through history on this walk where you may come across red squirrels and peacocks

Read more
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Corfe Castle offers a dramatic backdrop for a family picnic ©NTPL/David Levenson

There can’t be that many things better than relaxing in the sun with great food and good company? We’ve rounded up a selection of places in Dorset where you can do just that...

Read more
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Symondsbury Farm Shop and Store

Want to keep your food miles low and your taste experience high? Alice Cooke reveals some of the county’s best farm shops

Read more
Friday, July 24, 2015
Barrel jellyfish photographed at  Worbarrow Bay. Photo by Peter Tinsley

Love them or hate them, jellyfish are fast becoming a common sight along Dorset’s beaches in the summer, but as Sally Welbourn explains, they are something to be admired not feared

Read more
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Views to Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill from The Knoll

Edward Griffiths enjoys a summer coastal walk which offers panoramic views from the Isle of Portland to Lyme Regis

Read more
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Dr Warren at Durdle Door

One of the UK’s leading butterfly experts is walking the Jurassic Coast to raise funds to protect two of Dorset’s rarest butterflies – the Wood White and Duke of Burgundy

Read more
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Looking over towards Poole from Sandbanks at sunset

We talk to Liz Willingham, Managing Director of Liz Lean PR, to get a locals perspective on living and working in this very special part of Dorset

Read more
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Day Fourteen, Countrywide Great Tour (Copyright The Tour)

Later this month the Countrywide Great Tour will be joined by record breaking cyclist and adventurer Mark Beaumont

Read more
Monday, July 20, 2015
Studland South Beach by Jim Champion under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/) via flic.kr/p/6ua9NB

If you get off the beaten track you will discover some very special beaches along the South West Coast Path

Read more
Monday, July 20, 2015
Sandbanks Houses (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This summer, there will be a 64-day cycle ride covering the whole coast of Great Britain. The Countrywide Great Tour is heading to Dorset...

Read more
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Day six of the Countrywide Great Tour. (Copyright The Tour)

In the first week of the charity cycling event, riders have enjoyed North Wales, the North West of England and the South west of Scotland, clocking up 807km of coastline

Read more
Monday, July 13, 2015
A Sandbanks Sunset - possibly the finest in the world. Photo by Matthew Pinner

Stylish Sandbanks and the neighbouring ‘villages’ of Lilliput and Canford Cliffs make the most of this beautiful coastal area. And there are plenty of fabulous hotels, restaurants, shops and sporting events for you to sample the high life or a sundowner or two

Read more

NEWSLETTER SIGNUP



subscription ad
subscription ad
Dorset's trusted business finder